Up until the late 1950s, there were more than 30 pig farms
sandwiched between the Hackensack River and Penhorn Creek. The
McKay family's farm, a two-acre plot of land just off of
Secaucus Road - more commonly referred to as "The Backroad"
- was home to over 6,000 pigs."The Backroad was an unusual place," McKay said.
"There were the pig farms and saloons. It was like
something out of the old Wild West."From whiskey-hazed wage-workers to Henry Krajewski (the
notorious pig farmer who ran for president), Secaucus circa
1950, like the old Wild West, was overflowing with vibrant
characters.Ten years ago, McKay decided to capitalize on his colorful
past. He attended a songwriters' workshop and began to write
folk songs using his childhood as a leitmotif. Earlier this
year, after countless nights spent honing his homespun ditties
at amateur venues and open mic nights, McKay released his debut
CD, Backroad Joe.
Joe McKay began his music career playing polkas on the
accordion."Like most of the pig farmers, my family was
Polish," McKay said. "I had an uncle who was an
accordion player. That was part of my early inspiration."When McKay was a teenager, his older brother introduced him
to the kind of music he would later write and perform."When I was 13 or 14 my brother came home from college
with a Kingston Trio album," he said. "And that turned
me on to folk music. I picked up the banjo and the guitar and
played in several bands. And then I was drafted into the service
and went to Vietnam. When I got out of the service I got married
and had a family. So that ended my music career for a good 20
years."McKay, who has four children and five grandchildren,
supported his family with several varied careers. He worked as a
bus driver, a chimney sweep, and a vacuum cleaner salesman.
Today, McKay lives in North Haledon, N.J. and owns a garbage
hauling company called Dumpster Man with his son."Garbage has been in my family forever," said
McKay, whose father not only raised pigs, but also worked in the
waste industry. "I've got a saying, 'You can get out of
Backroad, but you can't get the Backroad out of you.'"Despite his self-professed destiny, however, McKay could not
dismiss his true passion. In the early '90s, when he learned
that John Stewart, one of the original members of the Kingston
Trio, was sponsoring a songwriters' workshop at the Omega
Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., he immediately reserved a spot."Stewart writes songs about the downtrodden that are
very grass roots," McKay said. "When I started talking
to him about where I grew up and where I came from, he said, 'It
sounds like you have a lot of songs.' I had never thought about
it like that."With the help of Stewart, McKay excavated his past and came
up with a series of songs that pay homage to his childhood.
After accumulating a small repertoire, he began to perform his
music live at open mic nights like the Turning Point in
Piermont, N.Y."I was amazed," he said. "People were really
responding to it. I would see someone in a public bathroom six
months later, and they would say, 'I remember you, you're the
one who sang about the pig farms.'"
McKay's music renders a portrait of Secaucus some of the
town's newer denizens may not even know existed."I remember when people used to boil grease to make
their own soap," he said "I got a good feel of what
the Depression was like."McKay captures the Depression-era mood in "Chicken,
Shorty and Cockeyed Joe," a song about three homeless men
who cleaned the stables on his father's farm."I distinctly remember them," McKay said. "We
called them 'swiner priests.' They used to clean up the manure.
According to my mom, they came from Eastern Europe. They would
get jobs as merchants, jump ship when they got to New York, and
wind up homeless on the Bowery. The pig farmers would go into
the City and round them up to work on the farms. We only knew
them by their nicknames - everybody on the Backroad had a
nickname - but as I grew up started thinking that these people
must have had a real name, and a family."The third track, which begins, "Backroad Joe didn't know
where to go, he didn't know what path in life he should seek. He
was born on a pig farm down on Secaucus Road, near the banks of
the Penhorn Creek," is similarly nostalgic."The Backroad used to be pretty famous," he said.
"That's the sad thing about Secaucus. There were so many
treasures. Now it's all been paved over and developed."And while it's been more than 40 years since pig farms
furnished the Secaucus landscape, McKay still finds himself
mourning for the poetic, if slightly fetid, days of his youth."It's still hard for me to adjust to the changes,"
he said. "I was in touch with the end of an era. It was a
very fortunate childhood to have had."